Project Leadership or Project Management?

Jumping frogWe, project managers, focus a lot on how to successfully define and complete projects. What’s the charter? The scope? The deliverables? What activities does the team need to engage in? Are we in control? On schedule? On budget? At times, the myriad details are overwhelming. Depending on the culture of the organization, the volume of details to be tracked can be so large that most of our time is spent in tracking the details. We may even need a project assistant/coordinator to be able to track the details.

But, does your team know what the goal is? Can they act on their own if the situation changes and there’s no time to update the plan and get it approved? Are you so indispensable that nothing happens unless you say it is OK? Can they veer away from the plan if required before the plan is modified and approved?

In the military, there’s such a thing as “commander’s intent”. What this means is that the commander, through various means, makes sure that his/her subordinates know what he/she is trying to accomplish and allows the subordinates the flexibility to carry out their assignments in the best way they see possible. A plan is defined prior to going on a mission. It is critical that the team think through the mission and possible obstacles. But, since a well known dictum is that a plan does not survive the first engagement with the enemy, the team knows the commander’s intent and the flexibility and boundaries that they have to respond to new circumstances. This requires a lot of trust on the part of the commander, while not exempting the commander from ensuring the achievement of the goal. Trust is built over time, through numerous mechanisms: a possible future topic for discussion.

How can we apply the concept of “commander’s intent” to project management? We need to apply leadership. Step away from the mechanics of project management for a while. Focus on how you can share your vision and inspire your team to deliver the project. Focus more on the results, what the customer wants, and less on the mechanics of planning and tracking. Make sure that your team members know what the objective is as well as what each of them needs to deliver to whom by when. Even better, have them involved in defining the objectives of the project and the deliverable timeline. Discuss the flexibility and boundaries they have when confronted with a new situation. Do some scenario planning (“what ifs”) so that the team gets a feel for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Stay in touch with the team so that you are aware of status and changes and you can provide feedback to them. And always focus on the goal of the project: meeting the customer’s expectations.

No, I am not arguing for throwing away our PM tools. But that is what they are: tools. Use them when it makes sense. After all, you would not use a hammer to drive a screw. Why hamstring your team by requiring an update to the project plan before they can react to a situation? Share with them your “commander’s intent” so that they know what is expected and what the correct response to a situation would be based on that fact.

Have you used “commander’s intent” in your project?

Jose Solera, PMP


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